Stress Urinary Incontinence in Women: Diagnosis and Medical Management

Mark Deutchman, MDMedical Writer: Meghan Wulster-Radcliffe, PhD

In This Article


Table 1 lists the definitions of various forms of urinary incontinence.[1,2] SUI is the most common form of urinary incontinence, occurring in pure or mixed forms in nearly 80% of women with incontinence, according to 2 European studies.[8,9] Urge incontinence (UUI), or "overactive bladder," is the second most common type of urinary incontinence. UUI is characterized by the unexpected loss of urine while suddenly feeling the need to urinate. Mixed urinary incontinence (MUI) is a term that applies to a combination of symptoms (SUI and UUI) and to a combination of urodynamic conditions (urodynamic stress incontinence and detrusor overactivity). Typically, women with MUI symptoms have more severe and bothersome incontinence than women with only SUI or UUI.[8,10] It has recently been proposed that these mixed symptoms are the result of, rather than the cause of, more severe SUI.[11,12] With urodynamic testing, MUI may be subclassified into more specific diagnoses.

The 2005 International Consultation on Incontinence (ICI) developed a series of guidelines, including a clinical algorithm for the initial management of women with UI.[1] The ICI algorithm recommends that the assessment include a targeted medical history and assessment of quality of life, a general assessment, and a focused physical examination before arriving at a presumed diagnosis and initiating treatment. The need to simplify this algorithm has been addressed.[13]

A patient history should include consideration of the underlying risk factors listed in Table 2 , as well as potentially reversible causes described in Table 3 .[14] In practical experience, in the primary care setting, a history based on eliciting underlying risk factors, reversible causes, and the symptoms listed in Table 1 will help identify patients with SUI or UUI. In the case of patients with mixed symptoms, it may be necessary to clarify the source of the symptoms. Asking the patient to keep a bladder record such as the one available for download from the National Library of Medicine at can help clarify symptoms.[15]

A focused physical examination is described in Table 4 . A urinalysis should be performed on all patients with incontinence to rule out pyuria (infection), hematuria (infection, stones, or cancer), proteinuria (renal disease), and glycosuria (diabetes).

A stress pad test -- either a short-term test conducted in the office or a long-term test conducted at home -- is also useful as an optional investigative tool. The test measures the amount of leakage that occurs when the patient performs a series of activities that might trigger urine leakage (eg, jumping, climbing stairs, coughing vigorously, performing deep knee bends, or washing hands). A pad weight gain ≥ 1 g is considered positive for the 1-hour test, whereas a weight gain ≥ 4 g is considered positive for the 24-hour test.[16] Controversy exists about the reproducibility and validity of these tests, and the 1-hour test is not very accurate unless a fixed bladder volume is confirmed via catheterization or ultrasound.[16]

The results of the history, physical examination for stress-induced leakage, and bladder catheterization for postvoid residual urine volume will identify the majority of patients with SUI or MUI and distinguish them from those with primarily overactive bladder. Those who can be assumed to have SUI or MUI will have a history of leaking with coughing or straining, will demonstrate leakage when asked to cough or "bear down" during the physical examination, will have a postvoid residual urine volume of < 50 to 100 mL, and will have a normal urinalysis. Bladder catheterization is no longer recommended as an obligatory assessment for all women. However, it should be considered in women with neurologic disease, severe pelvic organ prolapse, or a history of prior incontinence surgery or radical pelvic surgery. Although specialized urodynamic testing can be performed to more precisely differentiate between SUI and UUI, the results of such testing have indicated that a high percentage of those with MUI symptoms are classified in the stress category rather than the urge category.[17] It is therefore reasonable to consider initiating treatment for SUI in any patient with significant symptoms of SUI without performing urodynamic testing.


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